About three years ago I resolved to make enough time in my life to read one book a week. I’ve always read quite a bit, but reading being a domestic activity, it had always been the subject of the vicissitudes of domestic life. Busy periods at work, social commitments or just lack of overall motivation meant that it was easy to come home after a long day and veg out on the couch. Reading requires just that little bit more effort and commitment than other readily available entertainment substitutes and suffers as a result. As The Onion rightly points out – it’s easier to watch a Two Hour Biggest Loser Special than read the collected short stories of Vladimir Nabokov (metaphorically speaking).
Which meant that while reading was the cultural and intellectual activity that I found most rewarding, I didn’t do as much of it as I wanted. So I decided that I’d approach reading like you would an exercise regime; slogging through the periods of fatigue and lack of motivation with the aim of building enough momentum and a strong enough habit to keep me going in perpetuity. I wouldn’t sacrifice enjoyment or comprehension in the name of achieving this goal, but I’d prioritise my time throughout the week accordingly.
It’s not almost three years later and I’m still going strong. I’m a bit surprised I’ve lasted this long, but very pleased too. It feels great to get through a real volume of (non-work) reading – like getting mentally fit. I bet this is what Buddhists feel like J
Anyway, while I’ve blogged quick book reviews and extracts that I’ve liked for some time (at my tumblr Blogging the Bookshelf), I thought it might be fun to blog my impressions of my year in reading. So here’s part one of what I read this year in a broadly chronological order (my Kindle’s My Clippings file allows me to retrace most of my reading history, but with hard copy books the exact timing is uncertain).
- “A Single Man”, Christopher Isherwood – A closeted gay man in 1950s America loses his partner in a car crash. Achingly sad and closely observed. Very effectively conveys the smothering nature of grief. I read it to be much more pessimistic than the recent movie adaptation, but a good friend with a better perspective on the issues came to the opposite conclusion so I may be wrong. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “The Berlin Stories”, Christopher Isherwood – Writers, artist and bohemians in Weimar Berlin push the boundaries of social norms in the shadow of the rise of Nazism. Tells the story of a homosexual English writer in Berlin without ever conceding the existence of homosexuality. Layered with subtext and obtuseness, so exactly to my taste. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Oscar Wilde – English dandy and aristocrat enters into faustian bargain to preserve his youthful good looks. Reading Wilde is like running around a playground of the English language. Witticisms and homilies abound. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Tender is the Night”, F Scott Fitzgerald – A wealthy American couple deal with a wife’s mental illness and a husband’s insecurities while jet setting through 1930s Europe. Ah, Dick Diver – The most unfortunately named protagonist in literature. An interesting on though. The relationship between the two protagonists is beautifully and painfully realistic. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Casino Royale”, Ian Fleming. – You all know what it’s about – spies and poker or something. Trash. Unreconstructed misogyny and homophobia. Not as mendacious as others in the James Bond series (eg Goldfinger), but still probably a net negative contribution to society. That aside, I still can’t help myself from reading them. A guilty pleasure I guess. The books are darker than the films. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins – God doesn’t exist and if you continue to believe otherwise in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary you are either stupid or mentally ill. You can’t disagree with the logic or the verdict, but the way the case is put makes you wonder what is the point. It’s not the kind of book that’s going to persuade many with religious faith. Overall more irritating than enlightening. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Lust, Caution”, Eileen Chang – A novella of short stories set in WW2 Shanghai. This book makes you feel like you’re listening to middle aged Chinese women gossiping to each other in a tea room. A gossipy and melodramatic feel, but well constructed and ultimately effective. The circumstances of Chang’s personal life adds a layer of intrigue to reading the title story. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “The Maltese Falcon”, Dashiell Hammett – Hard bitten private eye juggles competing gangsters and a femme fatale in search of a fabulous antique. Not quite as good as The Thin Man, but still one of the best private eye mysteries. Sam Spade is one of the great characters of American literature. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “The Big Sleep”, Raymond Chandler – Private Eye gets caught up in the nefarious affairs of a wealthy patriarch and his amoral daughters. This book comes highly rated in the genre and was certainly enjoyable, but thinking back now, there’s very little of it that I can recall. There witty dialogue, I remember that much. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War”, David Lebedoff –A dual biography of George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, with the premise that these contemporaries lives shared more parallels than their very different personas would suggest. An enjoyable read, but ultimately the premise was stretched too far to be entirely satisfying. I found some of the themes enlightening (eg Orwell’s life as an Etonian trying to hide the fact and Waugh’s as a non-Etonian trying to pretend otherwise. Sadly, my strongest memory of this book was the factoid that Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was also named Evelyn! Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Why Orwell Matters”, Christopher Hitchens – One of the best essayists of our time riffs off the work of the best essayist of all time providing historical context and modern interpretation. A first class introduction to Orwell’s body of work and its significance for modern politics. All young progressives would do themselves a favour by picking up this book – it will take the blinkers off and dramatically accelerate the evolution of your political thinking. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “After the Quake: Stories”, Haruki Murakami – A collection of surrealist short stories loosely linked by the Kobe earthquake. This is the collection with the story about the giant frog. I am a fan of Murakami’s oeuvre, but I find myself feeling a sense of dread every time I come across one of his increasingly lengthy stand alone novels. In my view, his short story collections are invariably much more enjoyable. You get the same feeling of whimsy and disorientation, but in short bursts that don’t feel like a slog into the unknown. This isn’t quite up there with Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman for my mind, but is excellent nonetheless. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Darkly Dreaming Dexter”, Jeff Lindsay – Origin story of serial killer who works as a police forensics analyst by day and kills serial killers by night. I hadn’t seen the Dexter TV series so I picked this up to see what it was all about. It’s trash, but harmlessly so. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Up in the Air”, Walter Kirn – Shallow road warrior businessmen who specialises in facilitating redundancies confronts the emptiness of his existence. Cleverly written, but pretty insubstantial and emotionally unfulfilling. I liked the movie (and George Clooney) better. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “An Education”, Lynn Barber – UK journalist recounts her free loving youth and career as a journalist. I’m a bit embarrassed that I read this book for some reason. It’s a bit of a chick’s book right? The opening chapters dealing with her high school romance were engaging, but I lost interest as the book progressed. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “The Right Stuff”, Tom Wolfe – A non-fiction account of the lives and culture of the military test pilots who comprised NASA’s first manned space program (the Mercury missions). A tad gung ho and rah rah, but justifiably so. A genuinely awe inspiring story of real life human courage and endeavour. Great fun too. The Chuck Yeager stories in particular are mind blowing. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, Amy Chua – Intense first generation immigrant mother outlines her parenting philosophy in the form of a memoir of her experiences raising two over-achieving daughters. Far and away the funniest book I read all year. Chua’s complete lack of perspective or self-awareness produces a series of laugh out loud statements of parenting myopia. It’s amazing to think that just a year after this book was released, the phrase ‘Tiger Mother’ now requires no explanation. A phenomenon. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Parentonomics: An Economist Dad Looks at Parenting”, Joshua Gans – An economics professor tries to apply economic principles to the task of parenting with his own children as guinea pigs. Sadly for Josh, this book didn’t take off in quite the same way as Tiger Mother! But as a new dad with an economics background, I enjoyed it and picked up a few useful tips (Make sure your baby sleeps as far away from mum and dad as possible!). Buy – Borrow – Toss
- #“Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics”, Joe Klein – Charismatic Southern Governor seeks the Democratic Presidential nomination in the face of scandal and ethical quandaries. Originally published anonymously and hewing very closely to the real life circumstances of Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign, this is probably the second best fictional account of US politics (It will take a lot to knock off Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” from the number one spot in this regard). Gets at the core of why people become involved in politics and the trade offs they face once they are players. It’s telling that Joe Klein came to sympathise more with politicians than journalists after his experience with the media after he was outed as the book’s author. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays”, David Foster Wallace – DFW in his purest form; high quality, high brow, humanist essay writing. If you find him insufferably affected – you’ll hate it. Includes the majority of his most iconic essays eg The Las Vegas Porn Convention, The Maine Lobster Festival and Peta, Robert Federer and Authority and American Usage (AKA his grammar pedantry spray. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine”, Michael Lewis – An account of the causes of the 2008 global financial crisis told through the stories of the investors who saw it coming, and bet against the world financial system. Lewis is a seriously talented communicator and story teller. A cogent and comprehensible explanation of the causes of the GFC with real narrative structure. Really quite impressive when you think about it. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Democracy, an American novel”, Henry Adams – An 1870s New York society woman moves to Washington in search of a political education. The dialogue was amusing at times and some of the political philosophy was interesting and insightful but I found this book to be a bit of a drag to get through. The novelistic form has evolved for the better since this book was first published in 1880. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “In Cold Blood”, Truman Capote – Two drifters murder an upstanding rural American family. The birth of the ‘true crime’ genre. I know the reputation of this book and I don’t necessarily disagree with it, but I wasn’t personally taken by this book. Can’t put my finger on exactly why. Maybe I was just in a funk myself at the time. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts”, Clive James – An extraordinarily wide ranging collection of essays about the figures James considers to be most important to the cultural life of the 20th century. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant writing. Fascinating, meaty subject matter engaged by a luminescent intellect. At times, reading this felt overpoweringly rich; like eating pigs trotters stuffed with sweetbreads and truffles. I had to give my mind breaks from this book with less enriching fare in order to get through it all. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. I. My Father Bleeds History. & II. And Here My Troubles Began”, Art Spiegelman – A cartoonist tells the story of his parent’s experiences in the holocaust and his own experiences in drawing out the tale. You probably know this book’s shtick: the Nazis are drawn as cats, the Jews as mice and a complex and intense multi-generational family story is told in a way that is accessible to all readers. This book isn’t just excellent in it’s genre, it’s excellent for any genre. It deserves to be more widely read. There are a number of books that I’ve bought with the conscious intention of having them sitting invitingly on bookshelves for my children to sneak away to read for themselves. I really hope they grab Maus one day. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Persepolis”, Marjane Satrapi – An Iranian woman tells the story of her childhood in revolutionary Iran and her return to the country as a young woman. Maus put me onto a bit of a graphic novel bender. I was excited to explore a new genre that I’d barely touched before. Persepolis was a bit of a let-down in this context. It’s not bad, but Maus meant my expectations were set too high for me to really love this book. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth”, Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna – A graphic novel about Bertrand Russell’s ambition to ‘prove’ the logical foundations of mathematics. I’ve long loved Bertrand Russell’s pop-philosophy and essays, but I’ve never found a way into his own philosophy. It’s really mind bending stuff. How can you ‘prove’ that 1 +1 = 2 from first principles? Russell never worked it out, but this cartoon makes it reasonably straightforward to understand the questions he was posing. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- “The Walking Dead: 1 – 85”, Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn and Tony Moore – (Graphic Novel), The Zombie apocalypse in cartoon form. Harmless fun if you like that sort of thing. Buy – Borrow – Toss
- #“Anthills of the Savannah”, Chinua Achebe – An allegory of post-colonial politics in a fictional African nation told through the relationship between three childhood friends, a soldier, a journalist and a public servant. One of Achebe’s more underrated books. Lyrically written and very insightful on the nature of power, jealousy, hatred and repression. Buy – Borrow – Toss
Part 2 tomorrow (or whenever I get around to it).
A few observations on general patterns looking back on this list:
- 28 Fiction v 30 Non-Fiction books. A pretty good balance. I found myself wanting to read more fiction through the year than I did, but I kept getting way laid by high quality non-fiction. I blame Tyler Cowen.
- When you’re ripping through a book a week, the really big tomes (eg The Naked and The Dead, Cultural Amnesia), feel even longer than they are. I’ve also found myself deferring some very long books I’ve wanted to read because of this feeling (IQ84 & Freedom). I might have to be more disciplined about this. Maybe require one 1000+ pager every six months?
- I finished three essay collections this year (Orwell, Clive James and David Foster Wallace). This isn’t a genre I’d spent much time with before, but I very much enjoyed it.
- A weirdly morbid year in non-fiction; the Holocaust, Hiroshima times two, African Wars, North Korea, AIDS, the Columbine shooting. Very dark and not consciously selected. I may have to contemplate the significance of that.